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T. W. Robertson by J. B. M.

The qualifications needed by the novelist and by the dramatist are at once alike and unlike. Differing in manner rather than in matter, they are rarely found united in one man. Scott, from whose novels many stirring plays have been taken, was incapable of writing one himself; Thackeray, even after he was the well-known author of Vanity Fair, could not find a manager willing to produce his comedy; and Thackeray's great master, Fielding, comparatively failed as a dramatist, though Joseph Surface is Blifil and Charles Surface is Tom Jones, and from the same work Colman derived his comedy of the Jealous Wife, which holds the stage to this day. By dint of hard work a man might make himself a novelist, but the dramatist, like the poet, must be born. He who possesses the power of writing successfully for the stage will surely show it in his first work. This theory accounts for the signal success of the Cantab, a slight farce played in 1861 at the London Strand Theatre. The material was weak and worn-out, but the fun was not forced: it flowed naturally from the situations. There was a freshness and a firmness about the little piece which showed the hand of a young author capable of better things. Three years later, Mr. Sothern, desiring a part diametrically the opposite of Lord Dundreary, produced David Garrick, and in 1865 Society made its first appearance on the stage of the Prince of Wales's Theatre. Then T. W. Robertson stepped to the front rank of living English dramatists.

The author had found his audience and his actors. The Prince of Wales's Theatre was directed by a burlesque actress, and devoted to light comedy and extravaganza: after that it gave up burlesque, merely heightening the effect of the comedy and prolonging the programme by a quiet farce. The company was small and strong, the theatre was well managed, and plays were handsomely mounted. After the success of Society until Robertson's death its main reliance was upon his pen. In 1866 Ours was first produced, followed in 1867 by Caste. The pieces of other authors, although carefully played and well mounted, were uniform failures. Mr. Edmund Yates's Tame Cats, and Mr. Dion Boucicault's How She Loves Him! were each withdrawn after a run of a very few nights, whereas School Play, an M.P. succeeded each other with undisputed success. At the Haymarket Theatre David Garrick was followed by Home and Birth.

The day was won, and the successful author could afford to rest on his laurels. But he was ambitious and a hard worker; so he continued to write and adapt. To counterbalance the good-fortune of David Garrick and Home at the Haymarket, and the series of six at the Prince of Wales's Theatre, there was a list of failures—Birth, Progress, Dreams and War. But his comedies were far more successful than his heavier plays: his belief in his power to construct good acting dramas must have been sadly shaken by the total failure of For Love, the Shadow-Tree Shaft and the Nightingale. There can be no better proof of their want of success than the fact that at a time when American managers were eager for his comedies, not one of his dramas was ever produced in the United States. But in spite of the comparative failure of his later works, his death was felt to be the loss of a dramatic author of some performance and of greater promise,

We have a way of nicknaming a new writer after one of his most celebrated predecessors whom we imagine him to resemble, and then we find fault with him for not having all the qualities of an author whom he probably has no desire to imitate. False friends of T.W. Robertson called him the "modern Sheridan." Few writers are more dissimilar. Robertson in his dialogue and construction imitated the modern French dramatists; Sheridan, the old English, Congreve, Farquhar and Wycherley. Robertson especially delighted in love-scenes—there are generally two at least in each of his comedies: I cannot remember one in any of Sheridan's. The dialogue of the author of the School for Scandal is artificial and glittering—that of the author of School is generally more natural, and always less brilliant. They have, however, one point in common: they both practiced Molière's maxim, Je prends mon bien où je le trouve. They both unhesitatingly plagiarized. Robertson in particular easily assimilated foreign matter. He turned Le Dégel and Les Ganaches of M. Sardou into A Rapid Thaw and Progress. David Garrick was taken from Dr. Robin, a French play, itself imitated from the German. Home closely follows L'Aventurière of M. Émile Augier. Madame de Girardin's La Joie fait peur, previously translated by Mr. G.H. Lewes as Sunshine through the Clouds, gave Robertson the situation of the last act of War: Mr. Dion Boucicault has since deftly adapted the same delightful little piece under the name of Kerry, or Night and Morning. The Cinderella-like plot of School is taken from the Aschenbrödel of Roderick Benedix: the school examination was suggested by a French vaudeville, En classe, mesdemoiselles! The part of Beau Farintosh is a weak revival of Garrick's Lord Chalkstone and Colman and Garrick's Lord Ogleby; and the strong situation in the fourth act is imitated from Les Beaux Messieurs de Bois-Doré of George Sand.

But Robertson is decidedly strongest when he walks without crutches. His own original plays, Society, Caste, Ours, are by far his best. A foreign support made him limp. Of all his adaptations, home alone is really good: most of the others failed. Although that cosmopolitan mosaic School has been the most successful of his pieces in London—it has passed its five hundredth night—it is by no means the best. Success is not necessarily a test of real merit. Evidently, School has the elements of popularity, although it is a very weak piece, although it is full of foreign matter, and although it violates that most necessary rule of dramatic art, declaring no play should contain an effect, a line, a scene or an act which does not bear on the end in view by developing either the characters or the action. The entire second act, containing the farcical examination-scene, is useless. Robertson again sinned in this way in the Nightingale: although it had no effect on the plot, although it was entirely unnecessary, he introduced a pretty tableau representing the heroine, a lovely prima-donna, singing under the silver moonbeams in a boat rocked to and fro by the waves.

I have before spoken of Robertson's fondness for love-scenes. There are almost as many of them in one of his comedies as in one of Mr. Anthony Trollope's novels. And they are generally very good. What can be more delicious than the "spooning" in Home, if it is not the billing and cooing in Ours? But what can be more commonplace or more objectionable than the frequent remarks about love and Cupid scattered through his plays? Tom Stylus says in Society, "Love is an awful swindler—always drawing upon Hope, who never honors his drafts—a sort of whining beggar, continually moved on by the maternal police. But 'tis a weakness to which the wisest of us are subject—a kind of manly measles which this flesh is heir to, particularly when the flesh is heir to nothing else. Even I have felt the divine damnation—I mean emanation. But the lady united herself to another, which was a very good thing for me, and anything but a misfortune for her." This is altogether false: no man could ever say such things seriously—at least no man of sense would, and Tom Stylus is a man of sense. See, too, this bit of dialogue in Play:

"AMANDA. You are a good girl, and will be rewarded some day with a good man's love for this.

"ROSIE. I don't want it. I don't want anything to do with love. Love's a nasty, naughty, wicked boy, and the sooner he's put in convict-clothes and refused a ticket-of-leave, the better."

That is false too: the affected smartness of the wit does not suit the situation; or, rather, as a writer in the Athenaeum has said of a similar speech, "it suits any occasion."

In this same Play, Mrs. Kin peck soliloquizes thus: "I fell into a most unquiet sleep. I thought I saw Cliqueteaux, the old croupier, who died of love for me —of that and a complication of other disorders. A man that was a genius, with a wart on his nose. It was hereditary—the genius, not the wart," etc. Now this may be "funny," but it is not dramatic. It reminds one of the most forced passages of Artemas Ward's generally fresh and unforced humor. But perhaps the worst instance in all Robertson's play of this pitiful sacrifice of situation and character to a petty "joke" is found in Caste. Sam Gerridge, a gas-fitter and plumber, desiring to marry Polly, the daughter of Eccles, a drunken old brute, tells him so, casually mentioning that to prove his affection he will do anything he can in "the way of spirituous liquor or tobacco." This captivates the heart of old Eccles, who joins the hands of the young couple, saying with a drunken leer, "Samuel Gerridge, she is thine. Samuel Gerridge, you shall be 'er 'usband! I don't know a gasfitter man!" (The italics are in the original).

These are but minor errors, however. The great fault in Robertson's comedies is the lack of strong dramatic interest. There is no human passion. There is no exhibition of human strength and human weakness. There is little of that clash of character against character from which results true comedy. But even if his characters are mere empty-headed automata, even if his plays have not the literary value of Mr. W.S. Gilbert's, even if his pieces have not the situations of Sardou or the wit of Sheridan, he has a simple sweetness all his own. And perhaps, after all, the greatest objection to him is the weakness of his imitators. Success is always a schoolmaster. But it is not just to hold Robertson responsible for the faults of Alberry or the failings of the tea-cup-and-saucer school of comedy-writers.